The abominable over- and misuse of “you”
An ever recurring annoyance in today’s writing is over- and misuse of “you”. The “Freshly Pressed” entries on WordPress, e.g., are usually full of the word. Software literature is another great source of examples—the more absurd because software developers need to be of above to noticeably above average intelligence, and those who might actually benefit from “you” are best kept away from the field.
What is wrong with using “you”? Nothing—when the reader is validly addressed directly. This, however, is almost never the case. It is far more common to abuse “you” through-out a text as e.g. a highly sub-optimal means of attaching actions (believes, emotions, whatnot) to a subject. In these cases, there are a number of issues:
The result is unnecessarily wordy and hard to read, compared to more adult formulations. Compare
However, if you want to use features such as hot redeployment on a full application server, you need to package your application correctly.
(genuine example) with
However, to use features such as hot redeployment on a full application server, we need a correctly packaged application.
The second text is shorter, easier to understand, and stylistically better. Consider the effect not merely on individual sentences, but on the length of books: This is a roughly 15 % drop in length (more in terms of words; less in terms of characters). Admittedly, this sentence is not representative, but even shaving off just a few per cent can be valuable for a hard-working professional.
As an aside: The fact that I often am unnecessarily wordy, even without over-using “you”, is a matter of personal incompetence in this area—not a sign of problems with non-“you” texts in general.
“You” is often condescending, misleading, illogical, or entirely ridiculous. A particularly atrocious example is the common “in this chapter you will learn”: Possibly, but the reader may also merely be refreshing something he already knows—or even be a reviewer with superior knowledge… Even if not, the statement can be faulty, e.g. because the reader is merely currently getting an overview, contemplating individual points, or is slow on the uptake. A far better formulation is “in this chapter we discuss X” or “this chapter deals with X”.
I have even often seen “you” (the reader) used where context demanded “I” (the author)… A typical example would be a traveler describing his emotions or subjective impressions during certain events of a journey. Obviously, it should be “When I saw Mount Everest, I was filled with humility.”, not “When you see Mount Everest, you are filled with humility.” or any similar formulation.
Rule-of-thumb: Does the text work when taken from the perspective of an actual reader who takes “you” as a direct reference to him? If not, “you” is inappropriate. (The reverse conclusion does not necessarily hold.)
“You” polarizes the author and his readers; “we” unites them; other formulations provide neutrality.
“You” can be accusatory, even to the point of raising the issue of guilt or fault with innocents. Consider an oral example: “When you come late, you hinder the rest of the team.” Unless the counter-part actually did come late, this formulation is entirely and utterly unacceptable: Not only will most feel accused, but a third-party who over-hears the discussion can come to entirely incorrect conclusions. If the discussion is intended to be general, it should be kept general: “When someone comes late, he hinders the rest of the team.”
As can be seen by the previous item, “you” introduces unnecessary ambiguities: Is the author/speaker discussing the counter-part or a generic someone?
Rule-of-thumb: Try to replace every instance of “you” with an alternate formulation using “we”, a generic pronoun (e.g. “someone” or “one”), a sentence with an implicit subject (this sentence is an example), or a passive. Only allow the “you” to stand on those rare occasions when it actually is the best alternative. (Do not follow guide-lines that try to ban the passive outright: The passive is very valuable and the extreme anti-passive stance that many naive teachers take is highly misguided—they parrot and misapply an insight that they have not actually understood. Excesses of passives should be avoided, true, but very many uses are legitimate and beneficial, and bending backwards to eliminate them does far more harm than good—just like the positive effects of a pinch of salt on a soup are no reason to empty an entire salt-shaker into the pot.)
To expand on the implicit subject: This may seem to be just as bad as using “you” on a casual glance, because the implicit subject may seem to be a “you”. There are at least two crucial advantages, however: Firstly, there is no unnecessary overhead. Secondly, the implicit subject could in most cases be something else, e.g. a “we” or a more abstract entity. (For example, a “Try to […]” could be seen as “We should try to […]” rather than “You should try to […]”.) This resolves the problems with e.g. an accusatory or condescending tone.